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14 May 2010 7,449 views 5 Comments

35 years ago this weekend Led Zeppelin were finally back on stage in England. During that first weekend of the Earls Court run they set the standard for a memorable series of performances.

In this second part of the TBL Earls Court Archive Special, Dave Lewis offers an overview of those five glorious days of May 1975……..

Finally London was ready for Led Zeppelin…and just after 8pm on Saturday May 17th the lights dimmed, the band walked onstage and the long wait was over. However after all the build up…it was all a little nervous and tentative at first. Following Bob Harris’ “Welcome back to Britain” introduction, Jimmy spent the whole of ‘Rock And Roll’ trying to keep his lead intact. This prompted Plant’s opening comment: “You wouldn’t believe that after all the trouble to get this unearthly monster with us, the first number gets blown and all it is a sixpenny jack plug.” The guitar problems led to Page using his Lake Placid Fender Stratocaster for a couple of numbers, a guitar that was also in evidence during the May 23th show.

After this somewhat shaky start they quickly regained confidence and the new numbers from Physical Graffiti, ‘In My Time Of Dying’ and ‘Kashmir’ set the standard. The latter’s Eastern-sounding riff rose into a thick, booming sound that reverberated throughout the entire arena. As the tapes of the shows so vividly reveal, that booming sound was very much an Earls Court characteristic, a sound so solid that when Page laid down a chord you could practically lean on it. By the evening’s end the early nerves had all but evaporated, to be replaced by a relaxed atmosphere which found JPJ playfully offering a few bars of ‘The Teddy Bears Picnic’ as Robert introduced ‘Stairway To Heaven’.

The second night saw them settled into the run. ‘Over The Hills And Far Away’ developed into an early set template on each successive night. Loaded with rock steady authority, with Page at his most spontaneous, supplemented by  Bonham and Jones holding down the bottom line, hinting at the rhythmic tempos they would develop for ‘Candy Store Rock’ on Presence. Page’s double-neck guitar poses during ‘The Song Remains The Same’ would give the attendant photographers plenty of famous images while ‘The Rain Song’ saw the guitarist draped in blue light, casting another memorable portrait, a solitary figure in the spotlight ringing  out a jangle of familiar notes.

The outstanding performance of May 18th, though, was ‘No Quarter’ as immortalised on the subsequent Red Devil vinyl bootleg. Never before had JPJ immersed himself in this showpiece with such subtlety and grace, the defining moment being the point where he came out of the classical sequence  at around 3 minutes’ 45”, to play a cluster of descending notes that rippled from the grand piano and into the Earls Court air. The acoustic section found Plant at his loquacious best, unfolding tales of the origins of ‘Going To California’ (“So we went to Wales and when we got there we wrote songs about California”) and ‘That’s The Way’ (“So we were sitting on a grassy bank looking across the unspoiled countryside”). ‘Dazed And Confused’ was also developing its own unique Earls Court quality. Page’s delicate, melodic guitar passages leading into ‘Woodstock’ remain an evocative reminder of the times that still brings on the chill every time I hear the tape 35 years on. During ‘Whole Lotta Love’ they kicked into the rhythm of ‘The Crunge’ as they had done briefly the previous night but now further developed Plant’s echoed “I’m just trying to find the bridge” lines. A crunching ‘Black Dog’ brought show number two to a close after some 195 minutes on stage.

A week later they were back for a Friday night special.  In between they had fared pretty well in the press, garnering memorable front page cover stories in both the Melody Maker and NME. However Charles Shaar Murray’s slightly less than complimentary review irritated Plant enough for him to throw in a couple of digs on stage. As it was  they were just so up for it, as was  evident right from the moment when Plant gave out an excited ‘Immigrant Song’-style “Ah ah” squeal as Bonzo and Jimmy did the usual pre-song warm up. Following ‘Rock And Roll’ and ‘Sick Again’ Plant attracted huge cheers when he explained: “Last week we did a couple of warm up dates for these three nights, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We believe that these were the first three gigs to be sold out so these must be the ones with the most energy stored up because you’ve been waiting…”

The freewheeling on-stage energy was evident throughout, with Plant at his most gymnastic vocally, throwing in verses from ‘You Shook Me’ at the close of a thrilling ‘In My Time Of Dying’, and keeping up his Healey references with a “Bye bye Denis” during the song’s close. Before ‘Kashmir’ Plant explained he’d just had a vaccination in preparation for their impending exile… “‘Ready for when we go hunting  in the jungle for new words and new songs for a new album”. He and wife Maureen were due to leave the country on Monday.

It’s worth mentioning that this particular version of ‘Kashmir’ did not go entirely to plan – they missed the cue after Robert’s “Woman talkin’ to ya” ad lib, coming in a few bars late – an illustration that these shows, like many others, had their fair share of musical mishaps born of tendency to leap before they looked –  but Zeppelin live on stage was never about perfection. It was that air of unpredictability that made them such an engrossing live experience. During ‘Dazed And Confused’ they brought back a revival of the previously much deployed ‘San Francisco’ insert. ‘Stairway’ was introduced with the cryptic shot at NME scribe Shaar Murray. They left the stage to the hum of feedback and the swirling lighting effects provided by the mirror balls suspended above the stage, another nightly Earls Court ritual.

So to the Saturday night of May 24th, 1975. A combination of my familiarity with the much bootlegged soundboard tape – not to mention the fact that I was lucky enough to be in the second row – has elevated this show to a night I will never forget. It remains one of the greatest gigs the band ever played and certainly amongst the most accomplished I ever witnessed.

At the helm was Plant’s rapport and enthusiasm, and Page’s joyously deranged playing. Witness Plant’s heartfelt “This is for our family and friends and the people who’ve been with us through the lot” speech before a particularly melodic and caressing version of ‘Tangerine’, and superb phrasing during ‘That’s The Way’. Witness Page’s absolutely out-there-and-who-knows-where-it’s-heading solo on a ferocious ‘Trampled Underfoot’, the ending of which somehow collided with ‘Gallows Pole’. And then there was ‘No Quarter’. If the May 18th version stands as the definitive JPJ exercise, this May 24th version saw Page staking his own claim on the proceedings, emerging from the dry ice to layer on a series of solos, each quite exquisite in their delivery and command. Add on a truly memorable ‘Dazed’ with the best version of ‘Woodstock’ ever played live, plus an affecting ‘Stairway’ and a galvanic ‘Whole Lotta Love’/’Black Dog’ and you have the definitive Zeppelin in-concert experience. Hey and England beat Scotland 5-1 into the bargain! Not that Bonzo cared that much: “I think football’s a load of bollocks,” he bellowed, ambling up to the mic as they came back for the encore.

By Sunday, the final show, the party was nearly over and both group and audience seemed to sense that this was to be something of a swan song. Confirmation came when Plant said: “Welcome to the last concert in England for a considerable time. There’s always the Eighties.” How ironic that statement was to prove.

There were still many great moments to savour before the final exit:  Another refrain of ‘You Shook Me’ during ‘In My Tme Of Dying’, Plant playfully scat singing ad lib lines of ‘Friends’ and ‘Mystery Train’ before ‘Bron Yr Aur Stomp’;   the San Francisco insert returning during what would be the final live Zeppelin version of ‘Dazed And Confused’; then on into the home straight with an emotional ‘Stairway’ preceded by Plant’s moving reference to his daughter Carmen. Fittingly they added some extras for this final flurry: after the usual ‘Whole Lotta Love’/’Black Dog’ they returned to the stage again to perform ‘Heartbreaker’, Plant shouting out “Any requests” in a manner he would repeat at Live Aid ten years hence. They stayed on stage to decide what to do next, and at the suggestion of a cameramen pulled out ‘Communication Breakdown’. It said everything about the spirit of Earls Court that this final statement carried a final twist, Plant ad libbing lines from the never before played live ‘D’yer Ma’ker’, aping the reggae style of  Bob Marley. The extended middle section featured a spontaneous series of instrumental stops and starts between Page, Jones and Bonham. A quite astonishing finale. The emergence of a clear soundboard recording and unofficial DVD a few years back was ample proof that this show was on a par with the May24th set as the outstanding gig of the Earls Court run.

“Well it’s been about three hours and forty-five minutes. It’s time we went back to listen to some Bob Marley & The Wailers. Thank you very much for showing us we’re still alive and well. And it’s goodnight from me and goodnight from you. Good night and watch out for the holy grail.”

Those were Robert Plant’s final words at the end of a run of performances that left every one of the 85,000  lucky enough to be in attendance  in no doubt that they had witnessed a true Zeppelin event.

There was a party inside Earls Court after the final show attended by all the group and various guests including Jeff Beck, Chris Squire from Yes, Alan Freeman and Bob Harris. Music was supplied by Gonzalez and Dr Feelgood. The next day Plant left England for Agadir with his wife Maureen, subsequently meeting up with Jimmy in Marakesh for a spate of travelling that would inspire ‘Achilles Last Stand’. The plan was for the group to reconvene in Paris in August to prepare for a series of outdoor dates in America due to commence in San Francisco later that month. The events of August 4th would change all that. Holidaying in Rhodes, Robert and his wife were seriously injured when their rented car spun off the road. It was the first of a series of misfortunes that would dog the band for the rest of their career. The glory days were over.

In retrospect those glory days ended as the four of them left the Earls Court stage for the final time late on the evening of May 25th, 1975. It remains a milestone in their history. Sure there other great stints of concert greatness, those early runs at the Fillmore, Japan 1971, the spring dates in  Europe in 1973 and the riotous six shows at the LA Forum in 1977,  but what sets Earls Court apart from any other period was the perfect timing of it all. The group and everyone involved in their organisation really were at the peak of their powers. Over the five nights their performances crystallised their ability to play incredibly tight and still sound so loose and informal, balancing  a delicacy and brutality of rock emotion that has never been matched.

Can it really be 35 years ago? “It’s been a lifetime and yet a second,”   Truly they were the days of their lives. And mine too.

“Great Britain – it’s been five glorious days… and if you see Denis Healey… tell him we’ve gone”

Copyright Dave Lewis 2010 – not to be re-produced without prior permission.

More Led Zeppelin at Earls Court 35th Anniversary Archive Specials to follow….

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  • Mark Harrison said:

    I vividly recall the cutting you have used and actually salivating by the end! ” Each set will be three hours long”………

  • Phil said:

    As the tapes of the shows so vividly reveal, that booming sound was very much an Earls Court characteristic .
    Ahh! I remember those tapes!!
    Great peice Dave, brings back fond memories

  • russell ritchin said:

    NICE ONE AS USUAL DAVE just wish my friends could have got tickets for ALL NIGHTS but in the end just glad to have seen them at such iconic concert you could say it made a lasting impression on me
    as i STILL all these years later love these earls court concerts.

    keep rockin

  • Michael Brazee said:

    The hairs on my arms stood up as I read this.
    Thanks Dave.

  • Jez said:

    Exceptional piece as always Dave.

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